Media multitasking is the simultaneous access to different types of content, such as listening to music on a smartphone while watching a ball game on television or browsing the web on a computer and talking on your phone while scrolling through a social media newsfeed.
Multitasking requires divided attention. When neither type of media is very demanding, the user’s attention typically switches back and forth between what’s been presented to them from the two sources. It’s likely that the user can enjoy simultaneous access and won’t miss anything important because one distracts them from the other.
The situation may be quite different, however, when the user is trying to work. The vast majority of people cannot effectively process multiple streams of information at the same time, and attempting to do so can have a negative effect on performance and productivity.
Researchers at Stanford University explored systematic differences in information processing styles between chronically heavy and light media multitaskers. They found that heavy multitaskers had much more difficulty switching tasks and became more distracted by irrelevant information.